BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
MIDDLE QUARTERS, St Elizabeth — From as far back as anyone can remember, this village on the edge of the Black River Morass, sandwiched between New Holland and Luana, has been the prime location for peppered shrimp in Jamaica.
Every day, dozens of women and girls line the street selling the highly seasoned delicacy -- packaged in transparent plastic bags — to passing motorists.
Over the last decade, Middle Quarters has become famous for another attraction, Bubbling Spring. The relatively small facility on a bend in the road encloses a steady, gently flowing stream of water said to have curative powers which bubbles to the surface at that point.
Locals say the water originates in the limestone hills of the Cockpit Country far to the north.
Hundreds now visit Bubbling Spring on a weekly basis to experience the cooling waters in the 200-foot-long pool shaded by tall, leafy trees.
For community leaders in Middle Quarters, Bubbling Spring has now become the natural location for the annual shrimp festival held last Tuesday, Independence Day, following a two-year break.
"Bubbling Spring is a nice location," Patrick Malcolm, who heads the Middle Quarters Police Youth Club, one of the organisers of the shrimp festival, told the Jamaica Observer Central Tuesday afternoon.
"It provides the ideal setting where the children can play in the water, and there are all the other amenities ... the trees form a decent backdrop where people can sit and relax. Bubbling Spring has really come on board, and we are happy that they have done this for us," Malcolm, an educator and head of St Elizabeth's Football Association, said. He said part proceeds of the festival would go to repairing a multi-purpose court at Middle Quarters Primary School.
Lincoln Fagan, owner/operator of Bubbling Spring, who has spent more than $30 million on the officially approved visitor attraction over the last 13 years, applauded the partnership.
"When you travel Jamaica and you say Bubbling Spring, people know exactly where you are talking about, so it's good to have the shrimp fest along," he said.
Fagan has plans to expand the facility to include rooms for overnight stay. Some visitors, he says, have been clamouring for the opportunity to vacation on spot.
When Observer Central visited, dozens of people, especially children and young adults, were having fun in the water. Others, mostly adults, were at the food court a few metres away.
Shrimp was available in numerous styles, including peppered, curried and grilled. There was shrimp pudding, shrimp fritters, shrimp kebab, and shrimp soup.
Fish and lobster also graced the tables, as did jerk chicken and curried goat, but visitor Presley Dingham had no patience for anything but shrimp.
"A shrimp fi a run, nuh chicken," he said, as he revelled in a large plate of the peppered delicacy.
"It's lovely," said Michelle Reid as she consumed a serving of shrimp pudding. "I was a little apprehensive at first in trying it, but it's exceptional."
A concern for those in the shrimp business in Middle Quarters is an invasive species of shrimp, referred to by names such as 'hard back', 'alien' and 'river lobster' which is threatening the survival of the "original", more succulent variety in the Black River and its tributaries.
There appears to be no clear understanding of how the large, aggressive species, with its spiky, hard shell first entered the river, though there is talk of an experiment with an Australian variety going wrong a few years ago.
But for more than a decade now, the invasive shrimp has had a negative environmental and economic impact.
"This new shrimp killing out wi original shrimp in the river," complained Vanomie Malcolm, who sold varieties of shrimp-based food at the festival.
She said that with quantities of the "original" shrimp having dwindled dramatically in recent years, vendors now have to travel to Westmoreland and Clarendon to buy the succulent variety, adding extensively to their costs. "Expensive" sea water shrimp was also a much used option, she said.
Vendors say that while they do their best with the invasive species, especially peppered and in soups, the taste "is not the same".
Patrick Malcolm said that while approaches have been made to government agencies, including the Water Resources Authority, there was no available plan to deal with curbing the spread of the invasive shrimp.
Tony Freckleton of the South Coast Tourism Resort Board argued that organisation and cooperation among the various riverside communities would help in the long run to resolve problems such as the invasive shrimp.
"Perhaps the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries can help, but it seems to me that we need community group action to tackle issues, including environmental problems," said Freckleton, who assisted with organisation of the shrimp fest.
Regardless of problems caused by the invasive species, Freckleton and Clyde Harrison, head of the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) which sponsored the shrimp fest, had high hopes for its future as well as that of Bubbling Spring.
"We are excited by all of this," said Harrison. "We are happy to be a part of this ... any type of similar development to enhance the tourism product [on the south coast], we will be ready to deal with it," he added.